When West marries East
by Chris J. Woodcock
My name is Christopher John Woodcock. I am 30 years of age and I was born and bred in Bolton. A couple of years ago, after traveling America, and Europe and eventually studying for my PhD in Scotland, I decided to settle down in the sleepy town of Berwick Upon Tweed. It's was a nice costal town, everybody knew everyone, the pubs were friendly, and the scenery reminded me of home. But all that was about to change.
My girlfriend at the time was Japanese, we had been to Japan a couple of times before, just for a holiday, as she missed her folks. But this time she suggested we go and live there permanently. This was something I had to think long and hard about, as I had just started my own company, and had adopted a quite settled lifestyle. After, a good couple of days mulling over the obvious dilemmas like I can't speak the language, I don't like sushi (actually it's sashimi ¥µ¥·¥ß) and I hope they have got a MC Donalds, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a shot in the land of the rising sun. My family that I left behind had similar reservations about me going, but I've always liked to travel, and this was an opportunity to take on a new challenge, discover the myths about Japan and try to understand a totally different (yet as I was to find out later and be proved wrong) alien culture.
We flew from London late in the afternoon September 30th 1999 and arrived in Tokyo the following morning at 9am. Typically British I had put on my suit to impress my girlfriend's father Makoto san, who on previous meetings looked like he could instill the fear of god, into anyone who didn't treat his daughter with the utmost respect. This time however, was different from a holiday like last time; this was I coming to live in his house (for what turned out to be a year). Japanese people rarely allow guests to stay over in their homes for the night never mind a year; they are a proud nation always trying to show cleanliness and tidiness to guests but rarely extend to people staying over. Having friends around to the house is not like in Bolton were the whole family camps out for the week, with granma or granddad snoring in an armchair. In Japan, most house parties are timed to the minute, from entering the house, to serving the food, to leaving and saying good night.
After clearing customs at Tokyo's Narita airport we were met by what seemed like the entire Japanese Imperial Army. Every one of June's (my wife's) relatives had turned out to meet us. (It was a bit like the scene from Good Morning Vietnam when Robin Williams tries to take his language student out on a date and all the family tag along). It was also a blistering hot and sticky 36C, so you can imagine how I felt in that daft suit. The last time I met June's father he was wearing a suit, and I presumed he would this time, I was wrong! This time he had on a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sandals and to round it off a sun cap. Round one to him I thought.
We all piled in the car, and took the modest 3-hour drive (to June's house) only the air conditioning was broke. I thought all these cars around the world are made by Japanese people and they can't even get the air conditioning working. Once we arrived, all the food had been laid out on display, ready for us to eat, (as you'll find out sometimes Japanese housewife's get up at 4am to start cooking in order to prepare these wonderful dishes, preparation and presentation are extremely important in Japan). After the food, came the traditional beer drinking time; this I can assure is the one of the Japanese national pastimes. The only problem is after four pints most of them are intoxicated beyond belief. Then, all of a sudden the war cry emerges from June's mother - KAROKE!! It's 2am in the morning and my eyes are on matchsticks, but this is of no concern, the decision has been made and all 13 of us are going!
My wife who could not drink has been instructed she was the dedicated driver. Even granny's coming and she is ninety-two! It took half hour and two trips in the space cruiser before we finally landed at Big Echo, the premier of all karaoke houses. Each customer can have his/her private booth, or a shared booth. All the booths are soundproofed (thank goodness) believe me if you've ever heard Japanese sing when the sober it's nothing compared to when they've had the occasional tipple.
First up, is Grandma, this tune is straight from the Edo period, it's a blast from the past, and I haven't got a clue what the songs about. It could be a chant that all foreigners pleae leave (Japanese are never direct, it's the art of indirection that's typically most confusing to westerners) As it turns out it's a time classic love song from 1923. A bit before my time I mention to the wife, but to no avail, all 13 heads are swinging in unison, croaking along to a tune which sounds like feedback from a Rock Concert.
After the song had finished a score came up and a picture of an electronic doctor (isha in Japanese), told you how many Calories, you have just burned off. Not content with that you can have the results emailed to your doctor, mobile and/or home at a small charge. This was my first taste of how electronically oriented Japanese people are. In my next installment, I tell you the time I got stuck with the talking toilet, (it only responded to commands in Japanese, which was a problem!).
Grandma suddenly turned to me and beckoned with outstretch hand, thrusting the wireless microphone into my hand and demanding a song. I can tell you I am no Frank Sinatra, but up against these guys I felt I had a shot at the title. I thought I would do some Blur, or a bit of Robbie Williams, but no, the family had already preprogrammed the karaoke box for me to perform most of Elvis, a select few Beatles, and June's mum's favorite Oh Carol! To which we had to perform a duet.
Well after I had song the first song they made me sing all of them finishing up with Eric Clayton. Finally after four and a half hours of karaoke we arrived home at 4:30am. I climbed in to bed exhausted, thinking it's Sunday, and I'll get a lie in. Two hours later at half six, there's a knock at the door, and the wife tells me, were all off to a Shinto shrine for the day, I said, "what in the afternoon?" She said, "No, in ten minutes, hurry up there all downstairs waiting, did I not tell you". No she certainly did not. As for the day out well that's another story.